NEW YORK—How well do you know New York City?
I’m not just talking Grand Central and the Brooklyn Bridge. Do you know where Jackie O lived and how to reach the Bronx Zoo by subway? Do you know the difference between Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant?
This is no Facebook quiz. These questions are from the ultimate test of New York knowledge: the city’s test to license sightseeing guides.
I took the test cold, on a lark, with no advance prep. As a native New Yorker who’s written about tourism for more than a decade, I figured it would be a breeze. I also volunteer with an organization called Big Apple Greeter, taking visitors on informal walks through my favouriteneighbourhoods.
But the tour guide test is no walk in Central Park—not to mention Prospect Park (and if you don’t know where that is, you’d never pass).
After labouring for nearly two hours over 150 questions on everything from Greek Revival architecture to why the Staten Island ferry is orange, I was humbled (and I’m sure I got the ferry question wrong). Sure, I know the best place in Manhattan to see Picassos, but I have no idea which bridges and highways allow buses. I guessed right on whether the Bronx is the size of London or Paris, but I’m terrible with pop culture: Just where was the Huxtables’ house on “The Cosby Show”?
Some things, you pick up living here—questions on Harlem, Greenwich Village, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central seemed doable. For more obscure things, a personal connection helped. I nailed the question about a Yiddish theatre on the Lower East Side because my seventh-grade best friend lived next to the site. But I never could keep those old Dutch guys straight—Minuit and Stuyvesant.
Pity the test-taker who’s not up on immigrants, tenements and water towers. If you don’t know that stuff, hit the books before putting down $100 in test and license fees. “Blue Guide New York,” a cultural guide covering art, history and architecture, is recommended test prep. The New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, which administers the test, also offers a study guide online.
A passing score is 97 out of 150. Despite the challenges, I got 113 correct, but fell short of the 120 required to pass with distinction. Last year, 399 of 432 who took the test passed.
City law says anyone who guides or directs people to a place or point of interest here must have a license. If you’re hiring a guide and want to check, ask to see the official sightseeing guide photo ID, or search for the name on the Consumer Affairs website.
Licensed guides complain they’ve witnessed unlicensed guides leading tours. Some wonder whether the credential matters. “I don’t think I’m any better at what I do now that I have my guide license than I was before,” said Tony Muia, who offers “A Slice of Brooklyn” pizza tours and “Christmas Lights & Cannoli” tours. “I’ve never had anybody check it. Why must we spend the time and money to get it?”
Justin Ferate, who wrote the sightseeing test for Consumer Affairs and is a guide himself, offering tours of neighbourhoods around the city, says the license “is one level of quality control. Is it a perfect measure? No. But it is a process which basically declares the person has a module of knowledge. You want to know the person who is in front of you is speaking with some level of authority. It is a difficult test for many people, and passing it adds a certain gravitas.”
For sure, even those who pass find it tough. For me, the only easy questions were about food. Any self-respecting New Yorker—I daresay, any self-respecting foodie—knows the difference among baba ganoush, kimchi and a bialy.
Bagels versus bialys? That’s harder. But it wasn’t on the test.
How to get a NYC sightseeing guide license: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dca/html/licenses/021.shtml
How to prepare for the test: http://www.nyc.gov/html/dca/downloads/pdf/study_reference.pdf
Justin Ferate tours: http://www.Justinsnewyork.com
Tony Muia tours: http://www.asliceofbrooklyn.com/